MV and EE with the Golden Road Drone Trailer(Dicristina ) Buy it from Insound
This past summer I saw MV and EE play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia. The venue was conspicuously baron (maybe 20 heads, including bar staff,) but the mood suffered little from the absence of a crowd. The pseudo-apologetic rote description of poorly attended shows as “intimate” didn’t quite fit this one. Perhaps a simple duo performance, just Valentine’s guitar, Elder’s lap steel and “fucked up E-Bow” (her words,) and both of their voices, would have qualified as such, but with the Bummer Road in tow the pair were perpetually surrounded in a wavering sound cocoon, with the audience on the outside listening in. It was a great show: the sound was impenetrable, alternately captivating and lulling; the moments when the clarity of song surfaced above the mounting rumpus ("Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeasy living!") were beyond righteous. It is the only show I've even been to where I've almost fallen asleep and still walked away feeling I'd thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Such is the unique quintessence of MV and EE. In person and on record, the sound of Matt Valentine and Erika Elder playing together is akin to a beckoning cosmic voyeurism. Their songs all feel like songs of love and longing, even if they are not overtly presented as such, their lyrics exalting shared wonder, mourning shared loss, marking a shared horizon. A listening analog: Matt and Erika are walking hand in hand and we’re trailing a few paces behind; they climb strange, dovetailing back roads as if they were the way home, and we follow without cynicism or doubt; when they stop to pick a wildflower and stretch a note, we listen and wait.
Even when MV and EE riff up and wile out there is a sense that they are doing it on their own clock, at a stride both loose and purposeful. They are modern folk's counter-economists, their modest sound units stretched to fit a scheme that holds the love of song as gospel but is shooting for something just beyond the treble clef. Drone Trailer is the kind of record that could easily be shelved as a “nice enough” roots rock exercise, but the more it spins, the more it reveals itself as a rich emblem to the signature alloy of poise, wonder, and itching expansion that has typified the duo’s post-Tower Recordings work.
Taking the walk with MV and EE involves a willful suspension of disbelief. If your boot is stuck in Matt Valentine’s vocal channeling of Neil Young, you won’t make it too far out the gate. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask, given that our bellies have been bubbling with a steady stream of Diet Gang of Four for the better (or worse?) part of last decade. Besides, at this point it is evident that Valentine mimics Neil for purposes of tribute rather than cultural cachet. What could be less fucking fly than mirroring Neil Young’s warble in 2009? (Channeling the Police a la Vampire Weekend? A ZING!) Considering how purely aloof the duo are towards superfluous buzz and all that is current, I can’t imagine Valentine’s affectation as anything more calculated than as a familiar and resonant language with which to build something new.
Another caveat: if you find yourself saying things like “that song should have ended 3 minutes ago” with any sort of regularity, the persistent amble of Drone Trailer will probably exhaust your tolerance. The record begins with a blaze, but the fierce riffage of Anyway is an exhilarating aberration. The songs that follow this hard blues slobberknocker are all patient and slow, built on simple, repeating guitar arrangements that are peppered soft with lap-steel, harmonica, mandolin, melodic electric guitar feedback, and soft, stoned angel singing. This is the kind of record you have to want to listen to and love. It’s not going to force your hand or your heart. MV and EE just don’t work that way.
On Drone Trailer the dense sound assemblies that I described in my concert anecdote are dissected for their individual nuance rather than packed tight for their cumulative power. The album’s ten-minute center-piece, Weatherhead Hollow, begins as a sparse minor key drone, guitars summoning careful note pockets that tumble together, give way, and resurface only to tumble again. By the time the song comes to a head with the cautious stutter and tactful rolls of Golden Road drummer James Anderson, these same notes have been squeezed ever-so-gingerly into something more urgent, pained, and gorgeous. On Twitchin’, MV and EE sing in unison about missing each other, a gesture rendered all the more sublime by the interplay between Valentine’s guitar and harmonica and Elder’s train-whistle ghost of a lap-steel. The same dynamic is the buoy for The Hungry Stones, a love song whose delicate sonics and wide-eyed candor allow Valentine to peddle his mildly antiquated chestnuts of ardor without a whiff of irony: “You know it was kind of a drag/ to see your smile gone.”
In demarcating “pop” from “rock” (or is it the other way around?,) Simon Reynolds considered the former to manifest “the thing in itself,” an ecstatic essence of sorts, whereas the latter germinated at the point where pop looked over its shoulder and became, for lack of a better term, self-conscious, aware of its own sense of narrative and history. Drawing such a distinction was surely a more urgent task in 1986 than it is in 2009; contemporary critics of Reynolds’ stripe seem more concerned with conflating the two terms than articulating their unique aspects. However dubious this framework may seem, I enjoy considering it as a way of thinking about MV and EE. One would assume that the most self-conscious mode of rock is the very stylistic pseudo-pastiche that characterizes MV and EE on their post-Tower records. That said, one could hardly justify logging the duo among the likes of Jet, the Killers, or Kings of Leon, groups for whom stylistic awareness and referentiality is essence. Of course, even breaching the comparison seems ridiculous; this may very well be the first time these four groups were mentioned in the same breath. The point, at long last, is that one of the reasons I think that the music of MV and EE is so beautiful is that it sounds so oblivious: oblivious to pop music’s tangled nest of aesthetic and commercial systems, to popular culture’s prevailing lexicons and vocabularies, to traditional notions of radicalism and modernity, to history itself. In a young year already fat with big questions about big albums, the strange, serene pulse of Drone Trailer is a modest but powerful monument to the blissed out disregard for anything that is external to the maker’s heart and mind.